Georgia will travel to LSU for the first time in 10 years when the two teams meet this weekend, but for Kirby Smart the matchup is a bit more familiar.
The current Georgia head coach was a defensive backs coach for the Tigers under Nick Saban in 2004, and he faced off against LSU every season for nine years once he joined the Alabama staff in 2007. As a player, Smart was also a part of the 1998 team that defeated LSU 28-27 in front of the Tigers’ home crowd.
His well of knowledge about what to expect this weekend runs deep, and current Georgia players are eager to learn from their head coach before they are eventually forced to experience the hostile atmosphere for themselves.
“He has that experience and he just kind of understands what these games mean, and what they’re like,” senior defensive lineman Jonathan Ledbetter said. “He stresses to us what it means to him and what it should mean to us and where our minds should be.”
Smart’s memories of facing off against LSU as an Alabama assistant coach are the most recent, however it is his experience as a player that resonated with Georgia tight end Isaac Nauta the most. Smart tallied 12 total tackles when the Bulldogs beat the Tigers in 1998, which was nearly double that of the next leading tackler in Orantes Grant.
While conditions surrounding the matchup have drastically changed in the 20 years since Smart donned a helmet and shoulder pads, Nauta noted that his coach’s playing days were an important step toward where Georgia is as a team today.
“He’s a guy that’s been through it, and he knows what it’s like,” Nauta said. “I think that’s why he coaches the way that he coaches. He’s very fiery and passionate, and the older guys I’ve talked to that played with him say that he hasn’t changed one bit from when he was a player.”
Smart also noted that LSU has shaped how he approaches coaching, but he credited that influence to his fellow Tiger coaches in 2004 that have since gone on to become decorated head coaches on their own.
“At the time when I was living there, it was a great place to be,” Smart said. “I enjoyed it a lot, and have really good memories of a great staff. Being a young coach on that staff was very influential on me to get to be around guys like Jimbo [Fisher] and Will [Muschamp] and obviously Coach [Nick] Saban and Derek [Dooley].”
Still, Smart disagreed with the idea that his emotions regarding LSU will play any sort of role in the upcoming game. It is a sort of homecoming for him, but it is also the largest test the Bulldogs have seen thus far as it marks the first time they will face a team ranked in the top 15.
He was 6-3 against the Tigers during his time as an Alabama assistant, including 3-1 in the four games played in Baton Rouge, but none of those numbers will matter much come Saturday. According to the Georgia coach, the stakes are too high to spend time reminiscing.
“I wouldn't say that there are extra emotions about it,” Smart said. “I mean the emotions come from you want your team to play as well as they can for us. It's a game, and regardless of who it's against, that never factors in. For me it doesn't. I'm personally trying to get our team ready to play.”